We Still Need James Comey

In How We Behave, NATIONAL SECURITY -- articles only On
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WASHINGTON — By the time he was fired on Tuesday, James Comey was not a popular man. But it is not an accident that many people have quickly gone from braying for his blood to fretting about how our country will get along without him: Who will lead the F.B.I.? Who will stand up to President Trump? Whom can we count on to tell us the truth, without fear or favor, about the Trump campaign’s possible connections to Russia?

The reason for the sudden shift is not just horror at Mr. Trump’s behavior, though the thuggishness of the firing and its seeming connection to the Russia matter are horrifying. The other reason has to do with Mr. Comey himself, specifically with three characteristics that made him a most unusual figure in Washington. Put simply, we’re scared about losing — and we are already missing — the very things we hate about him.

Full disclosure: James Comey is a friend. I won’t pretend to neutrality about him. He is a highly honorable and decent person, and I have no doubt that he made the many judgments for which people loathe him in good faith. My purpose here is not to relitigate the merits of his handling of the Clinton email investigation or any other controversial judgment.

My purpose is, rather, to identify some salient attributes of the man that both infuriate people and simultaneously make his abrupt removal so scary.

First, Mr. Comey is without subtext. He’s the only truly subtextless man I’ve met working in senior levels of government in Washington. If you want to know why he’s doing something, you just ask him — in an open congressional hearing, in a news conference, in the Q. and A. at a speech at a college. If it’s appropriate to talk about it, he’ll tell you. He doesn’t lie. He doesn’t answer cagily. And, remarkably for a Washington figure, he explains his thinking. He answers questions about it. He releases documents.

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Is Trump Obstructing Justice?

When George Washington was preparing to take office, everybody wondered what to call him. Senators proposed lofty titles like “Illustrious Highness” and “Sacred Majesty.”

But Washington expressed irritation at such fawning, so today we are led by a modest “Mr. President.” Later, Washington surrendered office after two terms, underscoring that institutions prevail over personalities and that, in the words of the biographer Ron Chernow, “the president was merely the servant of the people.”

That primacy of our country’s institutions over even the greatest of leaders has been a decisive thread in American history, and it’s one reason President Trump is so unnerving. His firing of James Comey can be seen as simply one element of a systematic campaign to undermine the rule of law and democratic norms.

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Donald Trump Does Not Surprise

THROUGHOUT the 2016 primary season, two sentiments took turns reassuring Republicans as they watched Donald Trump’s strange ascent:

At some point, Trump will start behaving normally.

If he doesn’t, he’ll self-destruct or quit — or else somebody in authority will figure out a way to jettison him.

It isn’t surprising that people once believed these things; I clung to the second sentiment myself.

What is surprising is that after everything that’s happened, so many people believe them even now.

The reaction to the sacking of James Comey is the latest illustration. Far too many observers, left and right, persist in being surprised at Trump when nothing about his conduct is surprising, persist in looking for rationality where none is to be found, and persist in believing that some institutional force — party elders or convention delegates, the deep state or an impeachment process — is likely to push him off the stage.

Start with the president’s Republican defenders. Not the cynics and liars, but the well-meaning conservatives who look at something like the Comey firing and assume that there must be a normal method at work, who listen to whatever narrative White House aides spin out and try to take it seriously.

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